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Friday, December 2, 2016

I never will forget the first time I met a Russian orphan who had just been adopted by American parents.

It was 2003, and I was on a flight out of Moscow. A little boy with big brown eyes sat in the seat next to me. A man sat on the other side of the boy, and it was clear from their clenched hands that they were traveling together.

I was scribbling in a notebook when I noticed that the child was leaning over, trying to read. I smiled and asked his name.

“He doesn’t speak much English,” the man said, smiling. “My wife and I just adopted him and his younger sister.” He pointed to a woman sitting with a little girl several rows ahead of us. His story bubbled up.

“This is our fourth and final flight from Russia,” he said, patting the boy’s head. “This time, we fly out as a family.”

Over the course of the next couple of hours, I learned a lot about the brand-new family. The adults, both teachers in the Midwest, had heard about the two children through an American agency that worked with Russian orphanages. The children had been split up, and the couple were determined to reunite them.

The story of their young lives — as much of it as the adoptive parents could discern — was heartbreaking. The biological father abandoned their mother; she died in their apartment when the girl was a toddler. The boy, barely 4, took care of his little sister for weeks, carrying her wherever he went in search of food. Eventually, authorities discovered their mother’s body, and the children were separated and sent to two different orphanages.

It took more than a year for the American couple to adopt the children. They visited Russia several times to get to know the boy and girl. The father, who was clearly exhausted, could not stop smiling at his little boy.

I haven’t thought of that family in years, but news last week that Russia has passed a law prohibiting Americans from adopting Russian children brought it all back. The law went into effect New Year’s Day. Now thousands of American families who already have invested a lot of time, money and emotion to adopt Russian children — children they know by name, whom they’ve visited and promised a better life — are grieving.